Rust Belt revival: How Erie County, Pa., is trying to reinvent itself in the age of Trump

Erie’s future includes a diversified economy that invites entrepreneurialism. 

ERIE, Pa. — In recent decades, Erie, like many Rust Belt counties, has seen an exodus of manufacturing jobs and a consequent drop in its population. Between April 2010 and July 2016, more than 10,000 people moved out of Erie, a hefty number for a county of fewer than 280,000. 

After years of decline, Erie is in the midst of reinvention. In late April, I convened a roundtable of economic leaders to discuss Erie’s challenges and how they are being addressed. I spoke with six members of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership as well as the Erie Redevelopment Authority, which provides loans to companies that want to expand or relocate to the area.

Their vision for renewal is outlined in Emerge 2040, a 25-year economic development plan to build a “stronger, more prosperous, more resilient Erie County region.” It’s that last adjective that will be crucial to determining whether Erie succeeds or fails. 

In the 1950s, more than half of Erie County workers were employed in manufacturing. Now roughly one quarter are. Heavy industry has left and many smaller, family-started firms here got bought by larger companies and moved elsewhere. Erie-based GE Transportation, a division of General Electric that manufactures railroad and mining equipment, laid off 1,270 people in 2016, and moved much of its production to a factory in Texas. 

Some employers struggle to fill open slots, particularly for skilled positions. That’s partly because so many people have left the county, and partly because many who haven’t are addicted to drugs and thus unsuitable for employment. The smaller population has shrunk the tax base, straining public services. At one point in 2016, the Erie public school system threatened to close its high schools for insufficient funding. 

Almost everybody I spoke with agrees that, despite its decline here, manufacturing will continue to play an important role in Erie’s economy. Katrina Vincent, director of real estate for the Erie County Redevelopment Authority, 

recounted how Lord Corporation, a global aerospace company that specializes in shock and vibration-dampening products, recently decided against relocating its manufacturing facility away from Erie. 

Vincent and her team helped Lord, which was founded in Erie County nearly a century ago, find a new factory in the county and enticed it to stay through a combination of grants and low-interest loans. “It was a great success,” she said. “A loss of 1,100 jobs to this region could have resulted. [But] we were able to work creatively to ensure the company retained their core manufacturing and [research and development] in Erie.”

But everyone knows that to be more resilient, Erie must look beyond manufacturing. 

“Yes, we’ve lost so many hundred jobs at GE. I don’t care. I didn’t want to work them,” said Sean Fedorko, the 20-something co-founder of Radius CoWork. “I don’t know anybody my age who says that he wants to work a manufacturing job.” 

The consensus is that the key to Erie’s future is diversification. A recent study found that Erie ranked as the 118th most diverse medium-sized city in the country out of 144 studied. Roughly 40 percent of Erie County’s population lives in the city of Erie.

Jake Rouch, vice president of economic development at the Erie Regional Chamber of Commerce, predicted that a generation from now, manufacturing will still be an important part of Erie’s economy, but that it will be balanced by stronger medical, education, hospitality and insurance and professional services sectors.

Erie Insurance, a Fortune 500 company that employs 5,000 Erie residents, has hired people to build one of the most sophisticated data bases in the insurance industry. “We’re shifting what kind of city we are,” Fedorko said. 

Later I spoke with Joseph Sinnott, who has been Erie City’s mayor since 2006 and also sees manufacturing playing a “major” but “diminished” role in Erie’s economy. He pointed to the growth in the universities and hospitals as evidence of a new direction for the city and county. “We’re much more of a ‘meds and eds’ community than we were years ago,” he said. 

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Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper talked about the importance of culture in making Erie a more inviting place to work and live. She said Erie is working on making the city more walk-able and bike-friendly, and thus more connected. She added that it’s important to improve what she calls Erie’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” 

Entrepreneurialism is something I heard a lot about here and is seen as a key to Erie’s revival. Fedorko’s Radius CoWork provides a “first desk” to remote workers and anyone else who doesn’t have office space or wants to connect with others in the city. 

I also spoke with David Hunter, co-founder of Epic Web Studios, a web development, SEO and digital marketing firm with a dozen employees in Erie. 

Hunter said he’s seen a “resurgence of development and innovation” in Erie over the last seven to ten years and that the development in continuing as evidenced by the half-a-billion dollars of private investment that’s been committed in the city of Erie this year. 

Back at the roundtable, I asked the participants what they saw as their greatest challenge in attracting people to Erie. Fedorko said it comes down to lifestyle and culture. “It’s not about better tax credits,” he said. “It’s not about a special incentive program. It’s, is your city a place that talented people want to live?” 

Rouch disagreed somewhat, countering that creating good jobs is what’s most important. “If I’m a graphic designer and I have six opportunities in Portland, Oregon, but I have one job opportunity in the Erie market, as much as I may love what I see here, I’m probably going to go there because if it doesn’t work out with that company, I can move to another,” he said. “They may also pay 20 percent more. To me, it’s all driven by a job if you get the job opportunities.”

It’s hard to say what effect national politics will play in Erie’s future. Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the county since Ronald Reagan by promising to bring back manufacturing jobs. “I’m representing people whose jobs have just been taken away because their companies have left,” he told the Erie Times-News during a campaign stop here. 

But it’s an open question whether Trump can follow through on that promise given that many of the jobs have been lost to automation, not to companies exploiting cheap labor overseas. Trump’s proposed budget would also hurt Erie in myriad ways, including by eliminating funding for cleaning up the Great Lakes and through cuts to Community Development Block Grants, which the city of Erie’s director of economic and community development has said would be “devastating” to Erie.

Next: This county went heavily for Trump while being a haven for Syrian refugees

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